Location: Bowdoin / Bowdoin Faculty / Two recent films about slavery


Django Unchained

Patrick Rael
Associate Professor of History

It’s hard to imagine two films set around the Civil War that differ more than Steven Spielberg’s historical biopic Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation western Django Unchained.  In the broadest sense, of course, both concern the fight against the institution of American slavery.  Django Unchained personalizes the struggle through a revenge-soaked bloodfest, in which an evil slaveowner receives his just comeuppance at the hands of an exceptional former slave seeking to reunite with his bound wife.  In Lincoln, resistance to slavery occurs at the highest levels of government, as a great president struggles to secure slavery’s final end before his inevitable martyrdom. 

There the similarities may seem to end.  Lincoln maintains at least the strong pretense of historical veracity.  It draws inspiration from a well-respected book by a famous historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals has appeared in a new printing with the film's poster picture on its cover. Scrupulously adhering to known characters, it incorporates portions of dialogue verbatim from the Lincoln archive and records of Congress. 

In contrast, any claims Django Unchained may make on historical accuracy are quickly belied by the film’s first intertitle, which reads: “1858: Two years before the Civil War” (of course, the war began three years after 1858, in April of 1861).  Its inspiration lay not in history so much as film, particularly Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western Django and Richard Fleischer’s 1975 blaxploitation classic Mandingo.  While Tarantino delights in arguing that controversial aspects of his film — such as gratuitous use of the n-word, or mandingo fighting with slaves — square with the historical record, the real work here occurs in the realm of genre.  As is his wont, the auteur above all pays homage to his beloved b-movies, re-writing the past metaphorically rather than academically.

Neither film offers a particularly profound intervention into its source material.  Lincoln's hardly original thesis is that only the genius of a master politician could end slavery, a traditional interpretation in Civil War historiography.  While Django Unchained works as an entertaining mashup of its sources, black directors Mario Van Peebles (Posse [1993] and Panther [1995]) and John Singleton (Rosewood [1997]) have been mining similar terrain for some time.  Django Unchained does stand out in its brief but brilliant satire of white vigilantes, and the truly remarkable character of the black collaborator Stephen.  But the film's basic revenge formulation is as tired as is Lincoln's Great Emancipator theme.

More interestingly, Django Unchained and Lincoln celebrate a pragmatic moral order.  Despite their obvious differences in style, perspective, and scale, both depict temporary sacrifices of integrity for the sake of higher ends.  In Django Unchained, the enslaved title character throws in with King Schultz, a bounty hunter who trades in human flesh and teaches the slave he frees to do likewise.  As one might expect from the film’s genre roots, exacting justice on slave traders and evil planters often requires stepping outside the boundaries of a legal system assumed to be largely corrupt anyway.  Surprising, though, is the degree to which the film portrays its leads carefully adhering to legal constraint.  Schultz insists on bills of sale for the slaves he frees, for example, lecturing Django on the need to operate within legal boundaries, if only for practical reasons.

In contrast, the protagonists of Lincoln play remarkably fast and loose with the rules.  The most remarkable move in the film is its valorization of the corrupt spoils system that characterized party politics in the nineteenth century.  In his quest to secure the votes necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, Lincoln instructs his minions to work whatever deals are necessary.  Even Lincoln himself, contrary to the record, partakes firsthand in the trading of favors for votes.  It’s an astonishing move for a film about “honest Abe,” but it works because the stakes — slavery’s destruction — are so incontrovertibly high.

These curious tinkerings with expected ethics are significant, for they demonstrate the very different but clear limits each film places on the possibilities of liberation.  Both films' politics are too narrowly construed to effectively suggest comprehensive interpretations of how slavery actually ended and freedom came.  Scholars have been quick, for instance, to note Lincoln’s absence of major black figures.  The filmmaker’s decision to focus on just one month of activity at the highest levels of government pretty much ensured that its tale of slavery’s ending would remain virtually silent on the absolutely critical role African Americans themselves played in the process. 

As for Django Unchained, a film so intensely aware of its own cultural politics seems astonishingly quiet on how slavery would end in just seven short years.  Sure, Django effectively salts the earth on which the evil Candieland plantation stands, but of course others remain.  As Django and Broomhilda ride off into the sunset (why toward the North, and not the closer, freer, Mexico?), one imagines a Texas countryside teeming with white slave patrollers — indeed, after the conflagration that has just transpired, flooded with every living white person with a gun.  Not much hope for mass emancipation there.

Lincoln’s scholarly pretense and credentials may suggest that it carries a heavier burden to offer an actual politics of liberation, but we should not quickly write off the potential of Django Unchained, a film so self-consciously rooted in the independent African-American cultural production of the Black Power movement.  I know, I know — the film is no more meant to be a recipe book for revolution than is Lincoln.  But this in itself represents a declension from a time when powerful cultural mythologies could be harnessed to real live campaigns of social change.  As Aisha Harris points out in Slate, the blaxploitation era itself produced more radical takes than Tarantino's.  Why not, then, a film reprising the genre in a way that might actually suggest how slavery ended? 

Though he articulated it poorly in his typical mode of policing black cultural politics, I suspect that Spike Lee's real concern with Django Unchained lies somewhere in this realm.  Lee's objection to the frequent appearance of "nigger" in the script likely stands in for his broader objection to Tarantino's appropriation of black cultural idioms in the service of his own profits.  Tarantino's retort — that the word was actually used that much back then — is laughable from one who portrays slavery as institution largely concerned with mandingo fighting

In any case, the fantasy solution of re-writing the past, which occupies such a prominent place in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009), is less obvious here, but offers no more hopeful a politics for all that.  As fantastical as it was, the entertaining counter-factual killing of Hitler depicted in Basterds promises at least to forestall enormous destruction.  But the assassination of no single planter, or even score of Calvin Candies, could have had anything close to analogous effects in the antebellum South.  Of more interest to Tarantino than models of liberation seem to be the portrayal of evil.  In both films, the most interesting characters are not the nominal heroes, but the villains: the evil Colonel Landa in Basterds and Samuel L. Jackson as the formidable collaborator Stephen in Django (see also Stuntman Mike in Death Proof [2007].  In both films, fantasy solutions and fascinating fascism work powerfully to suggest how constraints on revolution supercede hopes for real success.

So we have, remarkably, an updated blaxploitation film that offers less in the way of a revolutionary cultural politics than does a very traditional paean to a great white man.  Lincoln’s hero, after all, actually ends slavery, albeit at the expense of neglecting the key roles played by the slaves themselves. 

The reality is that ending slavery took both Django and Lincoln — slave resisters as well as political leaders.  The great missing force in both movies considered here is the one that brought these two together, bridging the gulf between intimate stories of slave resistance and the operations of politics at the highest level.  A group rarely depicted positively in feature films — the abolitionist movement — accomplished this work. 

In the United States, that movement began with the efforts of free African Americans in the Northern states to formulate communities dedicated to uplifting their newly freed brethren, and liberating those who remained in chains.  Figures such as David Walker and James Forten inspired white evangelicals, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Marie Child, to take up the crusade of immediate abolition.  Together, black activists and white abolitionists worked together to influence public opinion, pressure legislative processes, and actively aid slave fugitives.

Perhaps most importantly, antislavery functioned to interpret the meaning of resistance and rebellion for a public that otherwise found them unintelligible.  By explaining slave behavior to potential white allies, antislavery activists united slave action with the political process.  As scholars are coming to appreciate, slave rebels themselves evinced remarkable awareness of the political and ideological currents around them.  In 1800, Gabriel Prosser plotted revolt in Richmond with the object of compelling the state's elites to end slavery, while in 1822, free slave Denmark Vesey planned an enormous conspiracy of free and enslaved African Americans in Charleston, the objective of which was to lead an exodus to the black republic of Haiti. 

While most whites considered slave rebellions evidence of blacks' brutish natures, antislavery activists were quick to pose them as tyranny's inevitable consequence.  By 1831, when Nat Turner led an uprising in Virginia that slew over fifty, Virginia's governor could blame "Yankee pedlers and traders" for having fomented insurrection through dangerous ideas, such as the notion that because "the white people rebelled against England to obtain freedom, so have the blacks a right to do."  Later, black activists would call for outright rebellion, as when Henry Highland Garnet told slaves to demand freedom by informing their masters that they would "rather die freemen than live to be slaves."

Beyond explaining the revolutionary content of slave resistance, antislavery activists warned otherwise unconcerned Northern whites of the dangers slavery posed for democratic society.  They noted the overweening power conferred upon the South by the Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution, which granted slaveholders disproportionate representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College by counting a portion of their slave property toward the free population.  As evidence of slaveholders' strangehold on government, they cited the gag rules passed by the House starting in the 1830s, which prevented Congress from receiving antislavery petitions.  This clear breach of constitutional rights offended even those unmindful of the plight of the slaves, as did provisions of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law.  By quashing Northern states' personal liberty laws, the 1850 act attacked rights of "conscience" and asserted slaveholders' eagerness to invoke federal over local authority (states' rights indeed!).  In the very process of protecting slavery, then, the slaveholders generated new generations of opponents.

Ultimately, a two-party political system committed to burying sectionally divisive issues could not contain the volatile issue of slavery's westward expansion.  Each time the nation's borders expanded — as in the instances of Missouri, Texas, or the Mexican cession — the fate of the institution in the territories demanded readjudication of the old sectional balance. 

The abolitionists used such moments to keep the issue on the agenda.  By converting local people to the cause, they compelled the parties to take notice, eventually causing splits in the Whig and Democratic parties.  The election of 1860 sparked secession because the slaveholders lost their grip on national power to a new party comprised of the moderate political manifestation of the radical abolitionists:  Lincoln's Republicans.  With Lincoln's election, the slaveholders reasoned that only by leaving the union could they maintain an institution otherwise marked for eventual extinction.  And Lincoln was not about the let that happen.

Once the war began, it was antislavery politicians such as Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens who led the charge on emancipation, blazing trails so that moderates like Lincoln could champion emancipation without risking all.  Once again, they helped interpret the meaning of slaves'  actions, converting mass flight into a policy of emancipation and military recruitment.  And, as so often had been the case throughout the Atlantic, recruitment led directly to freedom, and even citizenship. 

This is a story well worth telling in film, for it is a quintessentially American tale of how everyday people may come to influence huge national events through the workings of a highly democratic political culture.  Frankly, it sounds like a made-for-Hollywood epic:  a story that encounters characters across a range of social groups, connects exceptional individuals with broad social processes, and highlights the ways ideological commitments meld with material realities.  And, undeniably, it would be a story about Hollywood’s favorite topic:  the progressive expansion of freedom.  Frankly, it’s amazing it hasn’t been told yet.

Patrick Rael is Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin College. He has written and taught on the history of the Civil War in film. His latest work is Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States (University of Georgia Press, forthcoming).